Fight one more round. When your arms are so tired that you can hardly lift your hands to come on guard, fight one more round. When your nose is bleeding and your eyes are black and you are so tired that you wish your opponent would crack you one on the jaw and put you to sleep, fight one more round – remembering that the man who fights one more round is never whipped. - “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, heavyweight boxing champion
If you have been here before, you may have noticed the little tagline I have under my name at the top of this page. Am I a blogger-hater? What’s the deal?
Hardly. A blogger-hater with a blog is like a government employee hating the government. It doesn’t really make sense (though the latter is more entertaining). I love blogging, and I’m friends with many bloggers that are absolutely crushing it right now. Their blogs get hundreds of thousands of readers every month, and they are making money while helping out a captivated audience. Me? I’ve had trouble generating a consistent following over the years.
I’ve been blogging since 2007, when I first discovered the wonderful world of blogs and their potential. As a guy with a degree in creative writing, I was thrilled to see there was an actual type of job that you could do that harnesses the power of creative writing as a career. But I never really could find my niche.
Niches are the key in blogging – if you want to grab an audience, you need to carve out a place for yourself that a specific group of people will respond to, like nerdy guys who want to get in shape, crazed Disney World fans, or young people who have no idea what to do with money.
But besides picking the wrong niche, or growing into a different niche, or just completely losing interest in the subject matter in a very short period of time, there were other things that bogged me down as I tried to be a “blogger”:
It becomes a numbers game
Every pro blogger out there tells you to not worry about the stats, especially at the beginning. But it’s one of the hardest things to do. You find yourself trying to write stuff that “goes viral”, and it doesn’t work. Stuff doesn’t go viral because you write it to be viral. It catches on because it’s quality content that is sincere, and connected to the reader/viewer in some way, even if it just made them laugh. If you try to manufacture popularity, you will fail.
But when you are starting out as a blogger, you don’t know that. You just keep writing stuff – and suddenly, you stop writing the stuff that you want to write, and you start writing the stuff that you think people will respond to. Plus, I found an additional frustration in watching the numbers…
“WHY AREN’T THEY STAYING/SUBSCRIBING?!?”
I followed the advice: I had a great giveaway item. I had a prominent email signup box. Then I drove traffic to that page with some great guest posts on some high-traffic sites. Those numbers were fun to watch pour in, but few signed up. Only a handful stuck around to see what else I had to say.
Your confidence level gets shot through to the basement. You stop believing in the content you are writing, because you think what you’re saying isn’t worthwhile. Traffic numbers return to normal within days, and you got nothing out of it except for the temporary high. Time to start…
Begging for guest posts
This isn’t a knock on guest posts: they’re an excellent source of traffic, and they allow anybody to get in front of a new audience. It’s cool, and it’s a sweet feeling. But half your time becomes about begging all these high-traffic blogs for guest posts that they’re not interested in running. For every one post you might get posted on someone else’s site, you’ll get 5-10 flat-out rejections, or choruses of “this isn’t good enough”, or they’ll just ignore you altogether. It gets frustrating, and talk about a blow to your confidence.
I’m not funny when I try to be
My very first blog was a topic I was extremely passionate about: the 1990s. And yet, the only way (at that time) I could really blog about the decade was to put together posts on different topics, along with my own commentary. And for a topic like the ’90s, you just have to be funny. Unfortunately, while I consider myself to be pretty witty (and good at rhyming, apparently), if you give me a pen and paper and tell me to write something funny with a gun to my head, I’ll try way too hard and the whole thing will fall flat.
It’s just not fun for me right now
If it’s not fun and/or fulfilling for me, I won’t do it.
The quality of the content suffers
This was the main one for me. Suddenly, I’d find myself writing something because I had to, not because I wanted to or I had something to say. Making that public commitment puts you in the unenviable position of having to create content on a regular basis, and when you don’t have anything notable or worthwhile to say, it becomes a waste. You write banal, boring posts that don’t make any impression on anybody. Plus, you don’t grow as a writer.
I may blog again. In fact, I’m kicking around ideas for converting my TV Without Limits site to a blog if things don’t go according to the current plan, because I love home media centers and their possibilities. But I’m not going to run around trying to be a pro blogger just because I want to make money writing. I can find other ways to do that. Then, I can focus on writing this kind of stuff, which will be much more fulfilling, sincere, and ultimately, of much better quality than some of the garbage I used to put out.
And that’s okay. I’ve made peace with it. Right now, I have other priorities, and it’s a wonderful thing to be able to sit down and just write – not worrying about traffic, or WordPress plugins, or newsletter subscribers. Or guest posts. Or advertisements. Or banners. Or sidebars. Or social media traffic. Or comments.
Now, seriously, everybody needs to sign up for my weekly email in the sidebar. Because I’m totally going to rock your inbox.
A few nights ago, before the New Year was rung in, I sat in my basement fiddling with the television.
I was installing software to my Raspberry Pi so that I could have a full home media center in my basement, complete with live TV, just like the upstairs living room (insert shameless plug for my guide on how to do it here). The installation process on the Raspberry Pi tends to take a little time. I had my netbook sitting next to me with the installation instructions, and I found myself waiting around.
Knowing it would take about 20 minutes or so for the software to finish up, laziness set in.
Ugh, I don’t feel like going all the way upstairs just to come back down here again and check on it all the time.
My wife had friends over, so they had the living room anyway. My options were my office two levels up, or sit down here in the basement. I didn’t feel like surfing the net, even though I had my netbook there. Instead, I leaned back on the futon and glanced around the room. In an indirect way, I was looking for something to do.
My eyes came to rest on an item tucked away in the corner of the room that would be collecting dust if my wife didn’t dust our house every other week. It was an item I loved, but had neglected: my guitar.
Oh, the memories…
I got my guitar in college as a Christmas gift from my folks after professing my love for playing guitar. I was learning from my roommate – and half the guys on our floor. Seeing these guys jam every day and wanting to join in on the fun, I asked them to show me how to play. They all took turns showing me stuff, and I used my roommate’s guitar constantly for practice.
When I got my own guitar, it was great. I could jam with the guys, and we had a lot of fun – until I transferred to another college. I stopped seeing those guys every day.
In one fell swoop, my motivation for playing guitar sank. I didn’t have any other friends that really played guitar, so I had nobody to jam with. There was no musical atmosphere, and practice fell by the wayside. Sure, every other year I’d pick it up and play for a few weeks, but eventually, I’d lose it again.
An unexpected spark ignites inside of me
I felt like this would be one of those moments. If nothing else, it would be a semi-productive use of my time. I grabbed the old girl, fished a pick out of the bag, pulled out my worn, only-kinda-works-90%-of-the-time capo, and checked the strings. A quick “G” chord told me the guitar was, amazingly, pretty close to being in tune. Or close enough that I was just going to play it while the motivation was there.
I flipped open my netbook, opened a new tab, and pulled up Ultimate Guitar. I clicked on the “Top 100 Tabs” and looked for the chord-based music that I knew I could pick back up fairly quickly.
I played quietly, not wanting anyone to hear. After all, there were three women upstairs, and I didn’t want to subject them to missed chords and shaky notes.
But after a couple of run-throughs, it felt like electricity started running through my fingers again. I even started singing a little bit to stuff like I’m Yours or Wagon Wheel. The music grew louder and louder, and before I knew it, I stopped caring about whether or not they would hear me. The sounds coming from both instruments (the guitar and my voice) wasn’t perfect and was dangerously out of practice, but to me, I felt like I was rocking out an Open Mic Night in a coffee shop with everyone cheering me on.
I played until my fingers were burning to the touch – a sure sign that they are out of shape from pressing down the metal strings. But I placed the guitar back on its stand wanting just a little more time with it.
Bringing it back – under control
When I sat down to look over my goals from 2012 and what I wanted to do in 2013, I noticed one thing that not only did I fail it, but it wasn’t even close: learn to play guitar at a performance level.
I made a crucial mistake in writing that goal: it wasn’t measurable. What’s “performance level”, anyway?
So I decided to make a new goal for 2013: play guitar every single day for at least 15 minutes. That’s a measurable goal. That’s something that will produce results over time, and it’s something that I can control.
Power from creativity
But my mind still kept trying to determine why it feels so dang good to play guitar. This morning, as I ran to Target to buy a capo that’s actually going to hold the strings down, I think I found the reason: it’s a creative pursuit, and it gives me power.
Think of your hobbies: if you like to watch TV, that’s cool. But you don’t get any power from watching TV. There’s no flexibility in it, you’re not bringing anything to the table, and you are at the mercy of whatever’s on.
But creative pursuits empower you. You hold that power in your hands. Let me explain.
I love to read, but reading a blog post is something that I can do any time. It doesn’t take long, and I already know how to read, so there’s no practice. I finish a blog post and I move on. But taking the time to write a blog post? That’s power. I control the content on this screen. I determine how it feels, how it sounds, and how it looks. Doing it well takes a lot of practice, and in the end, finishing a good blog post gives you that fire in the belly that says, “YEAH! I’m a writer! This rocks!”
By that same token, listening to music is great, but I hear a song and I move on. But playing a song? That’s a whole different beast. That takes some serious practice. After putting in the hours to learn, once you strike that first chord that sounds like the song you’re trying to play, that fire rises again: “YEAH! I am playing the guitar! This rocks!”
I distinctly remember the moment that fire started up in me when playing guitar. I was playing a little-known song called Timothy by Jet (side note: hey, remember Jet?).
It’s a really easy song to play – only a few chords. As I played through in the rec room of our dorm, it was sounding fine. Then I struck the “E minor” chord that leads into the chorus of the song. Holy cow.
I immediately started strumming that chord as loud as I could. To be fair: it’s an easy chord. Really easy. It takes two fingers right next to each other. But to me, it sounded like the best thing ever. It was exactly the chord that you hear in the song! I was playing the song! By myself! For that brief moment, I was a musician. I was creating music. I still smile at times when I see an “E minor” in a song, because that was the chord that made me want to play guitar all the time.
As I play and write this year, I’m changing my attitude towards it. Yes, it’s practice. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it can be uncomfortable and frustrating at times. But when it works, it is sheer joy. And not only that, it fills me with power. It’s a creation that I hold in my hands, and something that I produced through the coordination of my brain, my eyes, and my fingers.
I work through this stuff for that payoff. When I create, it feels like I’m getting injected with magical steroids that fuel me on, that propel me to bigger and better things.
So whether you pick up the guitar, sit at the piano, push the trigger button on your camera, or scribble with your pen, remember: this isn’t just practice. This isn’t just rehearsal. This isn’t just something to do.
This is power. You hold it in your hands. Cherish it, hone it, continue building it up, and then do something important with it.
I just grabbed a sweet new plugin for Chrome called “Coupons at Checkout”. Basically, it saves you the time of hunting for applicable promo codes on an online order, so you can just plug them in and grab the savings. As someone who shops online quite often, this sort of thing is a godsend.
Click here to check it out!
“If you observe a really happy man you will find him building a boat, writing a symphony, educating his son, growing double dahlias in his garden, or looking for dinosaur eggs in the Gobi desert. He will not be searching for happiness as if it were a collar button that has rolled under the radiator. He will not be striving for it as a goal in itself. He will have become aware that he is happy in the course of living life twenty-four crowded hours of the day.” - W. Beran Wolfe
Sure, resolutions are easy to miss. In fact, nothing makes you feel inadequate like revisiting your resolutions from last year. But I’m not going to make resolutions – I’m going to make goals.
Is that semantics? Yep. But a goal is something I strive for year-round. A resolution is something I say I’m going to do and forget about by the third week of January. I’ve already talked about failing to reach your goals, and reviewed 2012. Now it’s time to look ahead.
The Basis for my 2013 Goals
Setting goals is always interesting, because you don’t want to set too many, yet you want to challenge yourself to be better. Here were my criteria:
- They had to be specific. Last year, I set a goal to become a better guitar player. Duh – way too vague. Guess which goal I didn’t keep in 2012?
- I needed control over them. My goals aren’t along the lines of “Lose X pounds” or “Have X number of clients”. Those are things that depend on a lot of variables. Instead, I set specific goals that I can track myself, and I can control them year-round. There’s a big difference.
- These are goals I want. Not anybody else’s. They’re not what I should do. They’re what I genuinely want to see happen in 2013.
Tracking my Goals
There are a lot of sweet apps and tools for tracking your goals, but I’m using Evernote. It’s just easier to keep it in a tool that I use every day – that way, my goals are in front of my face a lot. Plus, I can track them my own way then. I’m combining that with the chain method of goal-setting, where I mark down every day that I meet my goal, and I try not to break the chain.
So here they are!
- Contact each prospect on my list once a week. I was discussing my prospecting concerns with someone at the WDS Conference in Portland, and she used to work for a marketing firm. She says if you are contacting somebody up to 4 times per month, you aren’t “bugging” them. So I have 52 weeks to contact them.
- Hire 10 affiliates for TV Without Limits. Right now, my current game plan is to sell TV Without Limits through affiliates. I’m working right now with a network of several thousand affiliates to get my product in front of them. Along with that, I hope to push myself to contact other affiliates elsewhere. I want as many people selling my product as possible!
- Make $75,000. I set a goal of $50,000 this year, and I came in just a few thousand dollars short. Time to reach even higher.
- Build a list of 100-200 prospects in the health sector. I already am working with finance companies and prospects, but I’m about to add a piece of health copy to my portfolio. My goal is to use that experience to get more work in that area as well.
- Pay 5 things off our Debt Snowball. It will be a challenge, but it will be reachable, and definitely one that will go a long way in turning our finances around. This is a joint goal with my wife. If you’re not familiar with the debt snowball method of paying off debt, check out Dave Ramsey. We took his Financial Peace University course and absolutely loved it.
- Floss every day. Not 3-4 times a week. Every. Day. I’m tired of lying to my dentist, and bloody gums gets old after a while.
- Read 25 books. I originally thought I should read 50 books, but this is a book every two weeks, and it’s a good start to get me going. I really want to build and develop my reading habit this year.
- Practice guitar 15 minutes a day. Again, making it easy and specific for me. I’ll likely practice much more often than that.
- Three 5Ks. I loved racing in 2012, and I did two in 2011 as well. I want to take it up a notch and really push myself. And speaking of pushing myself…
- Run another ½ Marathon. It was one of my proudest achievements of 2012, and it’s one I want to beat. I almost came in under 2 hours, and I want to do it this year.
- Do yoga 4 times a week. I’m a huge fan of DDP Yoga and its benefits. I’m easing myself into a mid-day yoga routine, and it is crazy-helpful for my back as I sit at a desk all day. Plus, it’s a strength-building yoga workout, so I get a little bit of that lean muscle that the ladies (read: my wife) like.
- 1K per day. This will be apart from blogging and journaling. Again, very high expectations, but necessary ones. Writers write. If I’m a writer, I need to create on a constant basis. That’s the only way I’m going to find my voice.
- Publish a book. Yep, I’ve been kicking this one around for over a year, and I’m pulling the trigger. I’m in the preliminary stages of brainstorming, but I plan on publishing at least one book on Amazon this year. It’s going to be really tough and a true test of myself as a writer, but it’s a necessary one. I want to be an author. This is the year I do it.
And that’s it! A good mix of goals, nothing too overwhelming, and a good way to track it all to keep myself from getting too confused. At the end of the day, the transition to a new year is one where we get to start thinking about being better people. Ideally, we want to do that all year round, but it’s a convenient time. My challenge to you this year is to envision what you want your life to (realistically) look like at the end of 2013? And then, work backwards: what can you do to get there?
For example: you want to be in a better financial position at the end of the year? Don’t bother with “win the lottery”. You have no control over that. How about “cut monthly expenses by $100”? That’s doable. Then you can take that $100 and put it towards a debt, or put it into savings. There are ways to do it. But you have to have goals that you control.
What about you? What are your goals for 2013?
It’s review time for me today, which I think is one of those exercises that everybody would benefit from. I’ll be going over how I did on my annual goals and setting myself up for 2013, but first I want to look at some of the good things that went on this year. What better way to do that than an insanely-cliche bunch of Top 10 lists?
So, if you’ll let me, I’m going to channel my inner David Letterman (or my inner lazy blogger) and rattle off some really easy-to-digest, link-baity stuff that I liked in 2012.
Top 10 Apps of 2012
- Evernote. By far. I’ve upped the ante in my daily life’s use of Evernote with more notebooks, “stacks” of notebooks for better personal use, and an increased use of tags for better organization. I use Evernote to manage my own recipe book (making meal planning a cinch), personal goals, blog post ideas, stuff I should act on later, business finances, notes for copywriting projects, and I even use IFTTT to keep an automatic timeline of blog posts, tweets, mobile photos, and Facebook posts – sort of an automatic journal of my daily life. Evernote is, and will likely remain for a long time, my #1 app.
- Pocket. This one was new to me this year, and it definitely has earned its spot as my second favorite app. For those unfamiliar, Pocket used to be called “Read It Later”, which does exactly what it says – it allows you to read stuff later. With the browser extension, I am able to send articles from Google Reader or any website to my Pocket, which will strip the article of its extraneous fluff (like ads and other site-specific garbage). That allows me to have a coherent, consistent reading experience either on the Pocket web site or on my phone when stuck waiting in line for a sub at Cousins. It allows me to batch my reading whenever I want, which saves me a load of time.
- XBMC and Plex. Second only to Evernote in daily usage, XBMC runs our family’s living room experience. We keep and maintain a full library of movies and TV shows, along with integrated streaming from network websites and Hulu, and even a live HD DVR system. In other words, who needs cable TV? XBMC is free and really, really powerful. I’m in the process of putting together a second XBMC setup on our basement TV, which will be synced with our main TV as well for easy usage. I loved it so much, I put together guides on how to do it yourself for anybody. Plex works in tandem with XBMC (or can be used standalone if you’d like) to stream our giant library of shows and films to our tablet, phones, or my netbook on the go. So when we were in Rome, we could sit in our room on the Wi-Fi and watch The League instead of trying to decipher Italian-dubbed movies.
- Google Reader. It amazes me how many people still don’t “get” what RSS feeds are all about. Nearly every website you visit has an RSS feed. You like a blog? How about 40 of them? Google Reader will pull the content from the site into its own list for you automatically and instantly. So I can check 40 websites for new content in one shot. Plus, the Pocket browser extension gives me a little button in Google Reader, so I can quickly look at headlines, click the Pocket button next to the ones I want to read, and mark them all as read so that I can read the ones I want later and clear out my Google Reader queue. I’ve been using Google Reader longer than any other app on this list.
- Google Maps. Yes, I do love me some Google. With Maps on my phone, I don’t need a $100 GPS system. I’ve used Maps to quickly and easily find my way home, to other destinations in my hometown, and to find my way around Portland, Washington D.C., and even all over Europe. The driving and walking directions are invaluable, and with estimated travel times and public transportation options, I just don’t get lost anymore.
- Buffer. I like to share links, but I don’t want to barrage my Facebook friends or my Twitter followers with an overload of links that they can’t process. Buffer lets me space them out automatically. I don’t have to manually schedule them – I just add them to my Buffer and let the app do the heavy lifting.
- ClearCheckbook. Paper checkbooks suck. While I don’t love ClearCheckbook‘s interface, it beats the others. I don’t want automatic syncing – I need to be able to balance my checkbook manually, but without the need for doing the math. ClearCheckbook is simple and easy to use. Plus, it has the added benefit of being the “house” checkbook. So my wife and I can both hop into ClearCheckbook on our phones and enter receipts on the go, so there is no question how much money we have. Nobody monopolizes the checkbook, and there is no confusion. Our budget and spending limits are in there, along with everything that we need to balance and update our checkbooks as we want to.
- Dropbox. Easy, fast file syncing across devices for free. I use Dropbox to keep files synced up between my desktop, my netbook, and my phone. I also am part of a public file share through Dropbox and a mastermind group, I use it to easily share my portfolio with clients, share files with friends and family, and have the peace of mind that comes with having all my important documents and files backed up instantly.
- LastPass. Security is becoming increasingly important. LastPass helps me manage passwords on my phone and in my browser, so that I don’t really have to remember them anymore. I have my main LastPass password, combined with the added security of two-factor authentication (so if someone hacks into my LastPass account, they can’t get in without a code that I can only get from my phone), so that I am always using the strongest setup possible.
- Pandora. I like music. I like the radio. But Milwaukee radio is terrible. I don’t want to listen to 10 minutes of commercials, nor do I want to listen to the same 20 songs on repeat all day. Pandora lets me customize my music how I want to listen to it. I bought Pandora One, and the added benefit of commercial-free radio is bliss.
Top 10 Sites of 2012
- Reason.com. One of my new favorites. I want to be educated about the political scene, but I don’t want partisan bitching or the LOUD NOISES method of reporting that is all too common in today’s media. Reason seems to “get it”, offering a balanced approach that gets to the heart of the issues. It’s not truly bipartisan, because everybody has a bias, but it’s a more, well, reasoned approach to political issues. I think it’s important as an American to be educated about the issues, but it needs to be a proper education, not a slanted or insulting one.
- The Art of Manliness. This year, I’ve really rediscovered the desire to be a man. Not a macho guy, like those cartoonishly portrayed in sitcoms. But a man who has values. Honor. Character. One who is proud to be a man and recognizes that value. The Art of Manliness is a really wonderful site run by a husband and wife tandem and is a crash course in not only how to be a better man, but a better all-around human being.
- Longform.org. I love my Kindle, but I’ve wanted to use it for more reading than just books. Longform.org gathers longer content (i.e., longer than a web article but shorter than a book) into one spot: comprehensive blog posts, newspaper articles, magazine features, etc., on a variety of subjects. With one click, I can send an article I am interested in to my Kindle for free, and I have a collection of content readily available at all times. It adds to the education of issues and personal interest studies without the melodramatic fluff you find on mainstream sources. Plus, I get to read it on my Kindle.
- Lifehacker. I get more useful content from Lifehacker than from anywhere else on the web. From tech tips to lifestyle hacks to just cool and useful stuff to build, Lifehacker has it all. It’s my top feed in my Google Reader, and has been for years. Without Lifehacker, I wouldn’t be running Ubuntu or XBMC, or Plex, or LastPass, or Pocket, or Evernote, or IFTTT. I wouldn’t have a sweet mount for my phone in my car. I wouldn’t have TV Without Limits. I wouldn’t have found great deals on everything from apps to furniture to appliances. It’s the best.
- By Ken Levine. I have a real appreciation for the behind the scenes goings-on of shows and movies, because I’m interested in the creative process, and I love to see where shows come up with their content, or why the ecosystem of a show works or fails. Ken Levine worked on some of the biggest shows around (including one of my favorites – Cheers). He has an experienced and educated opinion on the state of television nowadays, and it’s one that I really like to read.
- Unitive. I’m a proud Christian man, but there is a fine line between “proud” and “Bible thumper”. The former doesn’t mind sharing his faith to someone who’s interested or who needs it, the latter shoves it in people’s faces without recognizing that they are being overpowering and obnoxious about it, which isn’t what Jesus or Paul or any of those guys asked us Christians to do. Christianity has a place in real life today, and Unitive brings together some great, entertaining, and “real world” views on the Christian life. Plus, it features the writings of Joshua Becker, who I met at WDS in Portland, and he is a super-nice guy.
- Inside the Magic. Not much to say about this one. Inside the Magic is a site that covers Disney Parks, specifically Walt Disney World. I would live at Walt Disney World if I could, so this site lets me keep tabs on the place between visits (every couple years).
- Amazon. Even though the shipping through FedEx caused some nightmares this Christmas, Amazon and its Prime membership continues to be our first place to go for our shopping needs. We get as much as we can out of the service, and we get it in two days. We’ve even used the $3.99 overnight shipping option once or twice, which worked flawlessly. We get books (both print and for Kindle), along with staples like paper towels and batteries from Amazon, and we couldn’t be happier with it.
- Nerd Fitness. We all need inspiration and motivation to be healthier. Nerd Fitness fits that bill, with humorous commentary and really well-written stuff from Steve Kamb – also a great, friendly guy I had the honor of meeting at WDS – who helps you find that sweet spot of getting healthier with a touch of nerdy goodness. He’s also realistic in his approach, understanding that not everybody has the time or money to work out in the “traditional” sense (i.e., spending hours every day at an expensive gym). He helps you maximize your time. I’ve purchased the Rebel Fitness series, and it’s well worth the money.
- RELEVANT Magazine. Another Christian site, but even more “real world”. RELEVANT Magazine covers media news and pop culture developments with a fun, but conservative slant. No “IF YOU LISTEN TO THIS MUSIC YOU’RE GOING TO HELL”-type stuff. For example, they recently did a great interview with Rainn Wilson, who is of the Baha’i faith. And they introduced me to The Heavy, whose album does feature some hard cursing at times, but they have an excellent musical quality. They have great discussions about God mixed in with all of this, which is a really refreshing approach.
Top 10 Stuff I Learned in 2012
- I’m intimidated by certain crowds. Put me on stage in front of strangers, and I can perform really comfortably. Shove me in a crowd of 1,000 fellow business owners, especially big-time entrepreneurs that I look up to, and I will clam up and hug the sidelines for three days, as I did at WDS this year in Portland, sadly. I was really surprised by my reaction to it.
- My writing needs work. I came to the realization that my writing can be lazy and lousy very often (I originally came to the conclusion that I was a lousy writer, but my friends in my writing group scolded me for that assertion). I backed off all the blogging-type stuff and started this site, which helps me work through my writing and find my voice, whatever that will be.
- There is opportunity out there. After hammering away at it for years, I broke into the direct response copywriting scene this year. As a result, I was able to give myself a $16,000 raise over 2011′s income. You have to work at it, and you have to do it longer than most are comfortable doing it, but that hard work really pays off. I’m still building up to something great, but 2012 was a huge step in that direction.
- Cynicism is getting old. I have family members and good friends who spend most of their time complaining about stuff: politics, how other people are spending their money, etc. We live in a world where blogs gain popularity by bashing celebrities and movies and TV shows, and talking heads on cable “news” programs complain about each other, politicians, sports, and whatever else they can fill time with. I’m bored with it all. There’s a lot of good in the world, and the best way to tap into it is by doing good things yourself. Start creating something worthwhile. Give back a little. Enough complaining.
- Sometimes a risk pays off. I took some risks this year that I had never thought of, like signing up for a half marathon, or dedicating myself to direct response copywriting. But when you take that risk, you also leave yourself open for success. You have to jump off that cliff to fly.
- It’s time to be a man. Like I said, I’ve rediscovered what being a man is all about. I’m hoping to be a father some day. I’m almost thirty years old. While men in this country seem to want to hang onto bad jokes, obnoxious partying, and stupid drinking, I’m realizing that I need to grow up. I need to invest in the quality of my possessions. I need to invest in the quality of my relationships. I need to ignore fads and start making decisions for myself. Men need to step up in this society more than ever.
- You just have to stick to it to make it work. That risk you take? You might not see results for a long time. I started heavily studying direct response copywriting in July 2011. I didn’t cash my first check until February 2012. That’s 7 months of hammering away at it for free. But this month, I’m managing four different well-paying copy projects. That’s because I stuck with it.
- The mind can overpower the body. Five days before my half marathon, I couldn’t complete a 6-mile run because my body was breaking down. Without ever actually running 13.1 miles before, I used the momentum of the race and my fellow runners to comfortably complete a half marathon in a quicker time than I expected. My mind carried me there. Once I believed I could do it, there was no stopping me.
- The world wants easy answers more than ever. From education to economy to gun violence, we all want to enact laws that will get rid of these problems. We all want to make a singular decision to make life better again. But there’s one problem with searching for easy answers…
- …there are none.
Top 10 Experiences of 2012
- Walking through the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower.
- Being stuck overnight in Beauvais, France and the subsequent panic of trying to get out of the country.
- Launching TV Without Limits.
- Finally becoming a direct response copywriter.
- Though intimidated, meeting and shaking hands with some wonderful people at WDS.
- Soaked to the bone, watching the Green Bay Packers beat the Detroit Lions as the snow fell at Lambeau Field.
- Crossing the finish line at the Wisconsin Half Marathon. Time: 2:02:51.
- Getting my eyes back with LASIK surgery.
- The rush of pride when I turned the key on my wife’s car after replacing the alternator and hearing the engine roar back to life.
- Starting this site and reconnecting with myself as a writer.
Lots of bad things happened in 2012, and I failed a lot. But I’m really appreciative of all the great things that happened. Now, it’s time to start looking ahead to making 2013 even better. What did you like about 2012?
In the past few weeks leading up to Christmas, I’ve found myself noticing little failures in my life. I’m not talking big ones, like “WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE?!?”-type failures, but little things. These are times where I’ve come up short, and often, they can be more frustrating than big problems.
- Copy projects aren’t getting turned around fast enough. I’m catching myself running out of time at the end of the day, causing me to put copy projects off to “tomorrow” over and over again. This not only negatively affects me mentally, but financially as well.
- Journal entries are getting spaced out farther and farther. I want to journal a little bit every day, but now I see a few days in between journal entries. It’s easy to put that off too.
- Blog posts aren’t getting done. “Five days a week,” I said. “Write every day,” I said. “Make it easy for yourself,” I said.
- I’m not exercising every day anymore. I L-O-V-E my yoga workouts, and I would love to get out in that 20-degree Wisconsin air and go for a run, too. And yet, I catch myself with a stiff neck and antsy legs because I haven’t worked out for days and days.
- Finances are a mess. Without going into detail, we’re just not where we expected to be when we started out the year.
When you sit and dwell on this kind of stuff – as we all do – we start to get down on ourselves. We stop trying, because we feel like we not only have failed, but that we are failures. That’s a really dangerous jump to make, because it impacts our mood, our health, and our relationships.
Fortunately, there’s a way to address this and never let it get you down too far. I’m in a slump personally, but that’s why I’m writing about it. Because before you can triage your shortcomings and deal with them, you need to acknowledge that they are there. They exist, and they’re painful to admit to yourself. But like they always say, “Admitting you have a problem is the first step.”
Now, let’s look at what I call the Failure Triage: the three steps I take to look at my failures, assess them, and move on.
Step 1: Look at Why You Failed
There’s very careful wording here: “why you failed”. This isn’t about “why this happened to you” or “why you got screwed”, or even “what happened”. This is why YOU FAILED.
We live in a society that likes to point blame. When somebody gets shot, we blame guns. When divorce happens, we blame the comical “irreconcilable differences”. When a kid beats up another kid, we blame violent video games or television.
But that attitude (which, in my opinion, is so backwards that it’s endangering our society) spills into our personal lives. We don’t exercise because we’re so busy we don’t have time! We don’t have money because we don’t make enough and everything is so expensive now! I’m not writing because I’ve been so focused on the holidays that I haven’t been in that mindset!
Ninety-nine percent of the time, we are in our current situations because of something we did. It’s because of some action we took, even if it was a reaction to something that happened to us.
Things happen to use every day, and it’s how we respond that makes us different from the other people who fail or succeed. As ay-yo Rocky Balboa said in one of the most underrated inspiring movies I’ve ever seen, it’s not about getting hit by life, it’s about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward.
Most people view this as a negative way of thinking: “It’s my fault” is not something you want to say to yourself. But there’s a hidden beauty in figuring this out: now, you have the power.
Once you start telling yourself that you are the reason why these things are happening to you, then you have the power to change it. You know that you can decide to do something different and change the circumstances of your life.
Instead of “Why bother, it’s not going to make a difference anyway…”, your actions suddenly have power.
Step 2: Figure Out the Steps You Need to Take
What are those actions? Hey, determining the source of the failure means there are ways to avoid it in the future.
Maybe you’ve found the triggers to a bad habit. Or you pointed out something in your environment driving you to make bad decisions. Now you have an idea of what to do about it.
For me, in the above situations, it really just comes down to priorities (and it often does for most people). Our finances are bad because we prioritized other things this year. I haven’t been writing because I’ve been prioritizing my time elsewhere (and often wasting it). I haven’t been exercising because I haven’t made the time.
Writing down ways to turn the ship around is a great way to brainstorm. As I learned in an excellent book*, one way to turn problems around is to just set a timer for 10 minutes, pick up a pen, and write until the timer ends. List any idea you have, no matter how outlandish it is. Doing this trains your brain to find a solution, and you might find some hidden gems amidst all the crazy ideas.
Here’s one thing to remember here, too, and it’s almost the same as the last step: these are things that you can do. Nobody else.
For example, I can’t write down, “Win the lottery” to fix my finances. Why? Because that is entirely dependent on somebody else’s actions. I can’t write “Get more clients”. Why? Because that depends on other clients signing up.
- Instead of “get more clients”, it’s “Make 10 phone calls a day to prospects.”
- Instead of “win the lottery”, it’s “Get on a strict budget and find ways to cut costs around the house.”
- Instead of “lose weight”, it’s “Do some activity for 15 minutes a day, starting at 11am, no excuses.”
And so on. You get the idea. Look at what you can control – you’d be surprised at how much you can do.
Step 3: Forget the Past Failures
Once you’ve learned from your past, ditch it. There is no other value in dwelling on it.
All it does is breed negative energy that will do nothing for you. So instead of sitting around thinking about how you failed, just focus on today (or tomorrow), and how you’re not going to fail that time.
Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move forward. Don’t look back. Move on. It’s the only way you can make a difference.
How do you deal with failure?
“Without entering into the discussion, he took occasion to talk to me about the manner of my writing; observed that, though I had the advantage of my antagonist in correct spelling and pointing (which I ow’d to the printing-house), I fell far short in elegance of expression, in method and in perspicuity, of which he convinced me by several instances. I saw the justice of his remark, and thence grew more attentive to the manner in writing, and determined to endeavor at improvement.” - Ben Franklin, The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
It’s easy to think you’re good at writing. I’m excellent at watching my spelling and punctuation, etc., for example. But there are so many other facets to writing than putting words onto a page.
When somebody showed Ben Franklin where he was falling short in his writing, he didn’t roll his eyes or complain that he “should be” better at this (like I often do). He paid attention and got determined.
That’s what we all need to do – and not just in writing. We all need to “endeavor at improvement”, and it takes rolling up our sleeves and doing the work. Putting the effort in is the first – and really, the only – step.
I’m generally not a fan of fiction drama. I think it’s because I’m more into real-life drama, and I feel like there’s plenty of that throughout history. Stories like Devil in the White City*, The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt*, or In The Garden of Beasts* are chock full of gripping dramatic moments, and there’s the added suspense that it’s, like, real.
Long form fiction drama, like television, is even worse. Everybody says that Mad Men and Breaking Bad are crazy-awesome, and I just can’t bring myself to commit to these shows. I’d rather watch The War or Prohibition. Or I’d rather get lost in laughter with Community, Arrested Development, or, (you guessed it) Parks and Recreation. If it’s going to be fake, it might as well make me laugh.
My problem with television dramas
I lose interest quickly. My wife loves watching Criminal Minds. It’s okay, besides the fact that it’s pumped to the gills with darkness, which isn’t something I really like to surround myself in for very long (and neither does the guy who actually starred in the show until he quit because it was too dark, apparently). And I start reacting like Bob Kelso at a certain point -
“Ted, the only thing I hate more than bikes are procedural cop shows. We get it. The pedophile did it.”
Heck, I’m almost ashamed to admit that I used to watch Grey’s Anatomy. But after a couple of seasons, you suddenly had rooms getting sprayed with excessive Seth Green blood for no reason and doctors performing on deer. It just loses whatever it had going for it and devolves into “WHAT CRAZY THING CAN WE DO NEXT?!?”
And of course, it can get melodramatic, and that’s the delicate dance that every drama has to dance. Almost every “perfect” drama gets old after a couple of seasons at the longest, and every perfect show starts having “stuff” happen for the sake of “stuff”, and the show pushed beyond the boundaries of the characters and plots they’ve set up.
It gets fake and forced, and most attempts to garner an emotional reaction from a TV show ring out as trying too hard in my book. This is why I chuckle when my wife just totally loses her mind while watching The Biggest Loser or something.
Give one of the main characters on any show a life-threatening illness or catastrophe, and I’ll sit quietly. I don’t buy it. It’s hard to convince me that anybody’s life is in danger when they’re on the show every single week. Grey’s Anatomy tried to make us believe that they were going to kill Meredith Grey when she’s narrating every episode and THE SHOW IS NAMED AFTER HER. There’s no drama there!
And yet, last week, one of the masters at television drama got me… again.
Here’s the setup: Parenthood is running a breast cancer storyline with Christina Braverman. Parenthood has always walked the line between ridiculously over the top and stunningly effective, and yet almost every time, it comes out on the latter.
I still fully expected the drama of the Braverman clan to fall flat here.
But throughout the last few episodes, the focus has been on Christina’s husband Adam, and how he’s struggling with trying to help his wife even though he can’t really do anything. He runs around the house like a chicken with his head cut off, taking care of the kids and trying to take care of his wife, and I start to get interested in the storyline because I “get” what Adam is doing: he’s trying to overcompensate to make his wife’s treatment easier, and he’s trying to be the superhero of the family to keep everything in order.
It’s a smart way to write the story, because that’s the part that people can relate to. I’ve been a husband now for over two years, and if my wife (God forbid) is ever stricken with an illness like cancer, that’s exactly how I think I would react. I’m going to throw myself into absolutely everything that goes on around the house and try to take care of it all.
The genius of the storyline hasn’t been “Is she going to die?!”, it’s been “How hard is this for the whole family?!?”
And like real life, the emotions really come from the smaller moments: when Adam is allowed to reflect on what’s actually happening. That’s when he shows weakness, and it really adds weight to all of it. I find myself being Adam Braverman in my mind – the “Holy crap, what would it feel like?” type of storyline.
Of course, to add to the melodrama, Christina comes down with a fever while going through chemotherapy… right before Christmas.
As she lies in her hospital bed, somewhat circling the drain, the show focuses on Adam. And suddenly, I get even more caught up in it. Adam, like me, keeps the whole fever thing quiet. He doesn’t want his parents running up to the hospital to check in. He just wants to deal with it, because there’s no “news” yet – they don’t quite know what her body is doing. So he sits, alone, at her bed, hoping she gets better.
Through a series of mishaps, the father of the clan, Zeek, finds out. And like my father would do, he immediately goes up to the hospital and jumps right in the middle of it, asking questions while Adam is freaking out and Christina’s body is crashing. Adam loses his temper, yells at Zeek to leave and get out of his way because he’s trying to deal with this.
Therein lies the true nature of what Adam is going through in that moment, and why he doesn’t want anyone around: he has absolutely no idea how to deal with this yet. He hasn’t figured it out. He doesn’t want people around because he doesn’t know what to say, and it’s killing him. He’s fixed things his whole life, and this is one thing he can’t fix.
I’m getting choked up right now just writing about the next scene.
Zeek knocks on the window of the quarantined room, asking Adam out to the hallway. Instead of making a big hoopla about everything, Zeek quietly hands Adam a bag with a few things from home, including a sandwich so that Adam remembers to eat. Adam tries to apologize and Zeek makes it clear that he’s going to leave Adam alone because he understands what’s going on. He tells Adam to make sure that Christina knows that he loves her, and he turns to leave.
In one of the most perfectly-acted scenes in the four seasons of the show, Adam fights back tears ever so subtly and asks his father if he would stick around for a little bit. It’s difficult to watch because, you see in Adam’s eyes that he’s accepting how hard this is, and while he knows it won’t do any practical good, he could use somebody around right now.
I watched with a lump in my throat the size of Montana, because I was invested in it. But then the show pushed me over the edge.
A few scenes later, Adam is alone again, by the bedside of his unconscious wife. He opens up her laptop to watch a video that she recorded for the kids “in case anything happens”. Adam struggles to keep his emotions in while he watches his wife say her final goodbyes to each child, and he closes it, takes her hand, and prays to God that she doesn’t leave him yet.
All of this sounds incredibly cheesy, but the combination of perfect writing and timing puts together a scene that had my bottom lip quivering and a few tears rolling down my face.
She ended up recovering just fine, of course. The ending was predictable from the moment they said “cancer”, and regardless of all of that, I got lost in it for a moment.
Patient storytelling is a lost art
Great writing and balanced, patiently-developed plotlines involving complicated characters produce scenes that, while predictable, can still leave you emotionally connected.
I attribute that to Jason Katims, executive producer and creator of Parenthood. No other television drama has gripped me like this emotionally, except for one: Friday Night Lights, which to me holds up as the best five seasons of drama ever put on television.
The head writer of that show? Jason Katims.
You can have all the crazy-awesome actors in the world, but they can’t hold up a meager script. You can write the most compelling plots, but you need characters that people will care about, and you need to know when to deploy them.
Katims (and his fellow writers on these shows) have found ways of injecting pure, real emotion into scenes. He’s taken the time to develop his characters and then build the show around them, which opens up their worlds to do whatever you want with them, because people will rally behind the characters that they love.
It all comes back to patient writing.
That’s why the last episode of Parenthood got me so bad. Had they done it in the first season, it wouldn’t carry as much weight. They know which storylines to throw down and when, so that you gradually build up the drama and gradually connect with each character.
It’s why you beat down Matt Saracen and have him quietly take it for three seasons and then let his emotions explode – do it earlier and he’s a whiner. Do it then and he’s a sympathetic figure that’s finally broken by the world unfairly piling on him for so long.
And it’s also why you get choked up with joy when Smash Williams finally gets into college after years of struggling: he was punished over and over for trying to take the easy way, and he had to earn his way in. It carried more weight.
Patience with your characters pays off. Patience with your writing does too. If you try to force your characters into off-the-charts dramatic situations in every sentence you write, you’ll lose. It won’t work.
Let the “little moments” breathe. Give it time. Because once you get your readers into your characters and you stay true to those characters, you’ve got them for good. That’s what makes good dramatic fiction work.